Rosé wines come in all hues, from light embarrassment to deep carmine, but their colouring lacks logic: the pale, glowing rosés of Provence, with their tints of apricot and white peach, should be stop-sign red, because these delicate wines are so dangerous, I occasionally wonder if we should drink them at all.
It’s not that they’re not delicious. But that is the problem. You lift your glass for a second sip only to find that the whole bottle has fallen down your throat – and these wines aren’t low in alcohol. And you’re still thirsty.
Plenty of effort goes into making them so sweetly sippable and some of it is human, though the winemakers don’t always realise how much help they get. I remember a lovely lunch with an aristocratic vineyard owner and his family on a sun-dappled hillside in Bandol, a tiny patch of Provençal coast east of Marseilles where the world’s most prestigious (and often expensive) rosés are made. When I admired his coriander plants, Monsieur le Comte assured me that it was the superb seeds he used, and chivalrously offered to send me some. I looked down at his hills coated in Mourvèdre and Cinsault grapes, rolling towards the azure Mediterranean, and knew it wasn’t the seeds, any more than it would be the grapes that would foil me if I tried to make a rosé like his Château de Pibarnon in England. I ate and drank – and drank – and argued politely, but he didn’t believe me and he sent me coriander seeds (“Tell him you only accept diamonds,” suggested a friend). Predictably enough, they flopped at the first exhalation of English autumn.
In Provence, rosé is made from red grapes – mainly Grenache and Syrah as well as those Mourvèdre and Cinsault –whose skins are left in with the juice only long enough to leave a trace of colour, then wrenched away. Perhaps that accounts for the note of plaintiveness I taste, although that may be just the reaction of an Englishwoman. We are, after all, a race so deprived of Vitamin D that we can get drunk on sunshine.
Anywhere with a red grape or two can make rosé, but I will always prefer Provence. Yet let us detour across the Rhône to Languedoc-Roussillon, in homage to the great American oenophile A J Liebling, who loved the rosé wines of Tavel. Liebling, who died in 1963, largely (very largely) of overindulgence, was exceptionally rude about the international fad for rosé that began during his lifetime, and blamed his countrymen, or, more specifically, his countrywomen (“the American housewife is susceptible to eye and colour”). But Tavel had his expansive and overstrained heart.
Unfortunately, Liebling’s words have lasted better than their subject. These days, Tavel rosé is fine but the reds of next-door Lirac are much better, and for superlative rosé you must go east, and drink pale wines tangy with local herbs and warm as summer’s breath.
Recently, I sat at a vine-side table outside the hotel of la Bastide de Marie, a beautiful former farmhouse outside Avignon, and drank last year’s harvest while staring out at this one. Domaine de Marie isn’t the best rosé I’ve tasted but in that setting it doesn’t need to be: it is gently, endlessly drinkable, and as I sat there, contemplating its pleasing evanescence, my sympathies tottered from my idol towards those maligned housewives. I, too, am susceptible to eye and
colour, if not to Tavel. I am inclined to trust my taste buds above all else and of this at least I know Liebling would have approved. Just because a wine is pretty doesn’t mean it isn’t good. “Life is too short for the formulation of dogma,” he once wrote, and to that, I will raise my glass.